Etude (Record Review): Hamza el Din, Escalay

(A LP happens to be 1 square foot, which makes record reviews almost obligatory for this blog).

Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘chapter’ of the 1989 anthology film New York Stories is about the relationship between a daughter, Zoë, and a father, who is a famous flautist. The only piece of it that’s stuck with me for all of these years is the moment when Zoë asks her dad to play her ‘the baby music’ at bedtime. And her beautifully mustachioed father obliges, playing a fluttery series of harmonics and arpeggios. The music was unmelodic and abstract—it could be the score to a documentary on cell division. It’s essentially pretty, white noise, but the effect is calming. The first time I saw the film I was in high school—just beginning to gestate my romance with New York City—and I connected it immediately and somewhat tenuously to Hamza el Din’s 1971 album Escalay.

My father was nicely mustachioed, but he wasn’t a musician. He would have liked to have been and he had two semi-functional musical instruments: a mandolin and a sad, reedless alto saxophone that lived in a box that resembled an exhumed coffin. The mandolin represented his affinity for all things Italian and the saxophone was him chasing after Bird and Coltrane and tripping over his shoelaces. They’d been set down permanently before I was born. My first memories of music and the comfort that it can provide came from LPs, Escalay among them. I was raised by an Anthropologist—Nonesuch Explorer made up a significant portion of the family record collection. It wasn’t quite the “Baby Music” to me, but it was part of the soundtrack to that hazily remembered period called my childhood.

Escalay, the Water Wheel

The first track, “Escalay,” or “The Water Wheel,” takes up the whole of the first side. Though I’m aware that there’s a Side B with additional songs, I seldom listen to it. “Escalay” is sufficient. First there’s the sound of the oud, an ancestor of the lute traditionally plucked with the feather of an eagle. For more than twenty minutes, Hamza el Din maintains a rattling, rhythmic accompaniment with suggestions of melody.  The sound rises and falls, capturing the pace and steady movement of a water wheel on the Nile River with repetitive rhythmic patterns. Occasionally the music slows to a halting melodic figure, pauses, then resumes. Then there’s the voice of Hamza El Din; which to the ears of a white kid growing up in Green Bay, Wisconsin could not have sounded more foreign. If El Din were singing to you from across a table, his voice would still sound distant.

The song is a programmatic evocation of a boy starting a water wheel that lifts water into an irrigation ditch along the Nile River in Nubia—which is a region that overlays Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan. The water wheel is creaky and clanky, and you hear that in the music. It’s powered by a team of cattle which must be pleaded with and cajoled. If you’ve read the liner notes it’s impossible not to hear the music without forming these images in your mind. Finally you get to the magical five minutes towards the end of the piece, where the oud plays a repetitive rhythmic figure alone. Escalay was an influence on Western minimalists, particularly Terry Riley who studied with El Din. This is the portion of the piece where it feels like there’s a direct connection between these seemingly different musical traditions. It’s these five minutes, when the musician loses himself in the motion of the water wheel, that I lose myself in the music. It’s a piece I often turn to when I’ve read too much bad political news.

But El Din isn’t quite what he seems. The Nonesuch Explorer series presented him—at least on the cover—as a traditional Nubian musician. “Oud Music from Nubia,” it says on the cover. Speaking for myself, my orientalist bias took this at face value and despite the liner notes, it never occurred to me that the music wasn’t completely traditional. I took it to be a field recording, recorded somewhere in Nubia. What the cover doesn’t say, and what the average listener could be excused for not knowing, is that oud music from Nubia would be like Alpenhorn music from Argentina. Though the instrument is used in the Arab world—especially in Turkey—it’s not an instrument that forms part of Nubia’s cultural heritage. El Din himself is from Egypt and he had to originate a style on the oud that adapted itself successfully to the vernacular. El Din’s approach to Nubian music is somewhere between Dvorák’s exploration of Czech folk music and Alan Lomax’s mission of cultural preservation. El Din had studied both traditional Middle Eastern music in Egypt and Western composition in Rome. The music flows from El Din’s work of traveling from village to village—which he did on camel back… with his oud—documenting the music that came from a landscape that was soon to be flooded by the construction of the Aswan Dam in the early 1960s. The water wheel, if it still exists, is at the bottom of a lake and my “Baby Music” owes its existence to an infrastructure project.

Soon after this act of preservation, El Din moved to the United States, where he released albums on Vanguard and Nonesuch, toured with the Grateful Dead, and taught at various colleges and universities before settling at Mills College in Oakland, California. In short, when I was young, nothing could have been further from the truth than what I imagined. I wanted to believe that the record had been recorded on the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when in fact it appears to have been recorded by an grad student at a studio at the University of Washington.* Regardless, this is an incredible record that I believe should be more widely known.

The LP is long out of print, however it can readily be found on Discogs and elsewhere; the music is also widely available through streaming media platforms. The piece, Escalay, can also be heard orchestrated as a string quartet performed by Kronos Quartet with El Din’s oud accompaniment on their magnificent Pieces of Africa LP, which was recently re-released by—happily—Nonesuch. There is more information about El Din on his website, which is sadly in need of an update.

* It’s amazing to realize how much the existence of Google has changed the world. In the 80s and 90s, when I first became interested in ethnomusicology, researching a figure like El Din would have required hours looking through periodical indices at a research library. It’s very difficult to put oneself back into the mindset of information being difficult or impossible to access.

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